Sri Chinmoy and the Language of Prayer

Dr. Vidagdha Bennett

Perhaps the greatest impulse to pray comes from our perception of the degree of separation between our human heart and God. When God is far from us, we yearn for His Presence. When we feel close to Him, we praise Him. We pray to God in the belief that our prayers will be heard, that they will bridge the chasm between the finite and the Infinite and link us to that immense Other. And, in rare moments of mystic oneness, we feel that prayer can embody something of the radiance and beauty of the Divine itself.

The many degrees of separation between the supplicant and God are frequently intimated through the speaker’s choice of pronouns. This is especially so in the English language where the profound influence of Tyndale’s New Testament (1526) followed by the Authorised King James’ Version of the Bible (1611) led to a preference for ‘I-Thou’ prayers and invocations.1 By the close of the 19th century, however, ‘thou’ had been replaced by ‘you’ in almost every instance, except a religious context. And, in recent times, even that has changed, rendering ‘thou’ virtually archaic – although many still rue its loss and believe that prayers which have been sanctified by hundreds of years of utterance seem to lose an intangible part of their sacredness when they are modernised. In the case of The Lord’s Prayer, to take a significant example, there are legions of Christians who treasure the elegance and majestic quality of the older translation:

      “Our Father, which art in Heaven,
      Hallowed be Thy Name.
      Thy Kingdom come,
      Thy Will be done, in earth as it is in Heaven…”

Here is a splendid God, a God great and mighty, a God who, even as ‘Father’, inspires such awe as to banish all thoughts of intimacy – truly a God to revere and worship. When these immortal words of the Christ are expressed without the honorific terms, many believe that the prayer itself becomes considerably weakened:

      “Our Father in Heaven,
      Hallowed be your Name,
      Your Kingdom come,
      Your will be done, on earth as in Heaven…”

There are even some who would infer that the humility and devotion of the supplicant are called into question by the use of ‘you’ and ‘your’. They believe that the use of the common pronoun denotes a conversation between equals, and that supplicants reciting the prayer will be less inclined to look upon God with awe.

Whether the original Aramaic words of the Christ contained this distinction is debatable. And, to the extent that “Traducta estraditor es” (“Every translator is a traitor”), it is manifest that many such ecclesiastical interpretations may be unique to the English version. But, inasmuch as it has helped us to refine our language of prayer, discussion about the appropriateness of the familiar pronoun ‘you’ for God has been extremely valuable.

Which way, then, lies the future of prayer? Will it be formal or familiar? Will the use of ‘Thou’, ‘Thy’ and ‘Thine’ be preserved from extinction or will they be allowed to depart gracefully in favour of everyday spoken English?

I believe that one of the answers to this question lies outside the Christian religion in the hundreds of prayers in English expressed by Indian poet and spiritual figure Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). 

In Sri Chinmoy’s prayers, both the familiar and the formal pronouns for God coexist, although the more formal usage predominates in his early writings. His choice of the older “I-Thou” format does not appear to arise from any conscious attempt on the part of the poet to evoke biblical overtones, a view reinforced by the fact that he was neither educated in the West nor was he nurtured in the Christian tradition. I believe that Sri Chinmoy’s use of ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ can rather be traced to the somewhat unusual literary environment in which he studied the English language.

Sri Chinmoy spent his formative years in South India under the guidance of the spiritual luminary Sri Aurobindo, whose poem “Savitri” is arguably one of the finest epics ever written. Educated at Cambridge University in the late 19th century, Sri Aurobindo displayed in his poetry many of the stylised features of the Victorian era, but he consciously tried to forge a new language of the spirit, or what he referred to as “a direct and sovereign descent and pouring of some absolute sight and word of the spirit into the moulds of human language.”2

Sri Aurobindo’s lofty language and incantatory style is exemplified by the following prayer in sonnet form written on October 25th, 1939:

       BECAUSE THOU ART

       Because Thou art All-beauty and All-bliss,
              My soul blind and enamoured yearns for Thee;
       It bears Thy mystic touch in all that is
              And thrills with the burden of that ecstasy.

       Behind all eyes I meet Thy secret gaze
              And in each voice I hear Thy magic tune:
       Thy sweetness haunts my heart through Nature’s ways;
              Nowhere it beats now from Thy snare immune.

       It loves Thy body in all living things;
              Thy joy is there in every leaf and stone:
       The moments bring Thee on their fiery wings;
              Sight’s endless artistry is Thou alone.

       Time voyages with Thee upon its prow, –
       And all the future’s passionate hope is Thou.

The poet has infused older forms of poetic speech with his own luminous vision to give his prayer a purity and intensity that is quite new.

We can see that Sri Chinmoy’s exquisite hymn of praise for God, published in his book “My Flute” in 1972,3 comes from this same tradition:

       HOPE

       Thou art my Lord, my golden dream,
              Thou art my life in death.
       O bless me with Thy Hope Supreme,
              Lord of the Eternal Breath!

       Agelong the vision of Thy Sun
              For darkness have I sought.
       I know the evils I should shun
              And quickly bring to nought.

       The earth is deaf and blind, my Lord;
              Its true goal it denies.
       It hears no voice, no heavenly word
              From those who seek the skies.

       O yet I feel Thy kingly Grace
              With my feeble mortality.
       I shall win at last the Noonward Race,
              Plunge in the Nectar-Sea.

Because he seeks to convey the feebleness of man and the overwhelming sovereignty of God, the poet has turned naturally to the language of ‘Thou’ and ‘Thy’. These words convey something of that immense gulf between the human and the Divine, and have the effect of diminishing any ego that might otherwise be brought forward in the course of the seeker’s personal petition. In an illumining comment in this connection, Sri Chinmoy writes:

      “Ego has to be transcended. Man uses the terms ‘I’ and ‘mine’ because he feels that these things constantly feed him. But the real God-lover wants to be fed by God’s Grace and God’s Compassion. A true seeker of God, a true lover of God, will use the terms ‘Thou’ and ‘Thine’.”4

And, in a further comment on the Christ’s immortal prayer, “Let Thy Will be done”, Sri Chinmoy says:

      “This is the greatest prayer that we can offer to God. In the sincere depths of this prayer is the extinction or transformation of the ego.”5

If the absence of human ego and the presence of God are interdependent, as he indicates, then the seeker’s choice of pronouns may be seen to play a crucial role in preparing him inwardly to be in a condition of prayer that is most receptive to the Divine.

The following prayer, which is pivotal to Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy, is based on this belief:

            INVOCATION

            Supreme, Supreme, Supreme, Supreme!
                        I bow to Thee, I bow.
                        My life, Thy golden plough.
            My journey’s Goal Thy soulful Dream
            Supreme, Supreme, Supreme, Supreme!
                        I bow to Thee, I bow.

            Supreme, I am Thy glowing Grace.
                        My world, Thy Feet of Light;
                        My breath, Thy Vision’s kite.
            Thou art one Truth, one Life, one Face.
            Supreme, Supreme, Supreme, Supreme!
                        I bow to Thee, I bow.

This prayer represents the ultimate self-offering of the individual human soul to the Divine. The seeker bows before God again and again in utter humility. Upon closer reading, one realises that the seeker gives no indication that he feels unworthy, small or inadequate. On the contrary, he is singularly aware of the great responsibility vested in him by God to manifest the tremendous dreams and visions that God wishes to fulfil in and through him, dreams of such significance and beauty that he is almost overwhelmed by them. He sees himself as radiant with a light that is not his own.

‘Supreme’ – the Name that Sri Chinmoy has chosen to express his concept of God – is sufficiently new to Western ears to suggest both the transcendent and the personal aspects of the Divine. It corresponds to the ancient ‘Purusha’ of Indian scriptures. In his “Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita”, Sri Chinmoy writes:

      “Purusha is the pure, witnessing consciousness … Purusha is actionless. No action is possible in Purusha, for Purusha transcends both time and space. Yet without Purusha, there can be no universe, no manifestation.”6

Discussing the concept of the Purusha in the Rig Veda, Indian scholar Hiranmay Banerjee writes:

      “Here, the whole creation is identified with a colossal person, whose dimensions are big enough to explain for the entire universe and yet leave a residual portion to suggest, presumably, its all-pervading character.”7

Similarly, the ‘Supreme’ in Sri Chinmoy’s writings represents an immanent principle, and yet it is one which can respond to the seeker’s prayers, one which not only reciprocates love but whose love sustains the universe.

The bond between man and the Supreme that is reflected in “Invocation” is in sharp contradistinction to the following prayer which issues from the experience of God’s absence:

       A LITTLE

       A little joy have I of ceaseless joy,
              A little day of timeless day.
       Yet knows no bound this empty show of mine;
              I march along a goalless way.

       O Love! A desert within me ever pines.
              Do turn it into a song of dawn.
       I know not in what hour of evil night
              Thou art, my Lord, from me withdrawn.

       Life now must reach Thy Breath of Bliss supreme,
              Make Thee the one and only Guide.
       Thou art the Bridge between my death and birth;
              O let my longings in Thee abide.

Here it seems that the poet has chosen to employ the honorific pronoun as a way of actualising God’s withdrawal – “I know not in what hour of evil night/Thou art, my Lord, from me withdrawn.” In this context, the use of the old affirmation ‘Thou art’ emphasises the remoteness of God. The personal God has receded into the Impersonal, day has been overtaken by night, light by darkness. The pilgrim continues marching but fails to find the bridge that will lead him away from the realm of night towards a new dawn.

It may also be relevant to mention in this context that ‘Thou’ is a singular pronoun and, therefore, the God who is invoked is also a singular entity, whereas ‘You’ lacks that singular-plural distinction and can sometimes, as a result, seem more abstract, ambiguous. In the Hindu tradition from which Sri Chinmoy hails, a tradition in which the plurality of God is central, the use of ‘Thou’ underscores the oneness of the Divine – all the various manifestations of God coalesce in this singular pronoun.

In the following poem, the supplicant has come to terms not only with the grandeur and impersonal nature of God but with his own place within that vastness. Because of this attitude of acceptance and surrender, the poem is transformed into a celebration of God’s immanence:

       MASTER

       O Lord of Nature, sovereign Sun of all!
              Who, if not Thou, will speak of Thee?
              Thy Smile of Grace through Eternity
       Frees all aspiring souls from night’s dumb call.

       Reality Unique! Thou art the ring
              Of the lowest chasm and spanless height.
              In Thee they feel their haven bright;
       In Thee all beings move and wave and wing.

     To see Thy all-transcending mystic Form
              No vision have we of golden gaze;
              Thou art the noon of all our days,
       The veerless Pilot in our death’s stark storm.

There is a great parity in the images between “A Little” and “Master”. In the former, God is both the bridge and the Guide; here He is the ring and the Pilot. Where previously He was the One who transformed night into a song of dawn, here He is the “sovereign Sun of all” and “the noon of all our days”. Instead of invoking God’s “Breath of Bliss”, the poet now summons His “Smile of Grace”.

The poem has a superb ease of delivery. In a line of singular beauty, Sri Chinmoy allows his vision to be swept along by a judicious use of conjunctions and alliterative effects: “In Thee all beings move and wave and wing.” Sri Chinmoy’s God is not a pantheistic God, but it is true to say that, like his kinsman Tagore, Sri Chinmoy sees Nature as infused with “the suggestion of an Uttermost Beyond.”8

Sri Chinmoy tends to use initial capital letters to dignify his mode of address even further and to add typographical emphasis. Not only ‘Thee’, ‘Thy’ and ‘Thou’ are accentuated in this way, but also the names for God and His divine qualities, for example “Thy Breath of Bliss supreme”. While initially disturbing to the eye perhaps, these majuscules do provide clarity of interpretation as well as signalling an intensity of tone which we might otherwise have to intuit. And it is perhaps evidence of the flexibility of the English language that the rules of capitalisation are arbitrary enough to permit extreme variations from one writer to another.

Again, this preference for capitalisation, though permissible in English, provides a challenge for translators, especially those working with languages where there is no distinction between capital and lowercase letters, or with ideogrammatic languages where there are no letters at all. Again, in the German language, all nouns are capitalised and so the mixed case effect of Sri Chinmoy’s lines of poetry cannot be effectively reproduced. A further point of interest is that in the poet’s mother-tongue, Bengali, capital letters are non-existent, as indeed are all punctuation marks except the vertical end of line bar. Perhaps, as he made the transition to English, the poet discovered that he needed to indicate some difference between the common applications of any given word and its application to God.  

The prayers by Sri Chinmoy that I have so far considered are classed among his earliest creations in the English language and date from the period 1955-1972. Along with his use of the “I-Thou” format, we can see that the poet was also concerned with expressing his prayers within a highly formal rhyming and metrical structure. He meets the delicate tension between the demands of poetry and the demands of prayer by fulfilling both. There will always be critics to question whether poetry can still be called thus when it is so overtly prayer, but I believe that we find in Sri Chinmoy’s work a creative, honest and sustained attempt to render his prayer in the most heightened poetic language possible.

Not all Sri Chinmoy’s poems of this era are addressed directly to God, yet all reveal something of the inner spiritual condition of the poet. Consequently, it becomes difficult to isolate his prayers from his entire oeuvre. Poems evoking the “dark night of the soul” evolve into poems of prayer, and poems of prayer evolve into poems of illumination, wisdom and realisation. It is a pattern that is repeated constantly through Sri Chinmoy’s works and with endless variations. In the poem “Another Day”, for example, the poet begins with the sorrowful line:

       Another day, another day,
       My Lord Supreme is far away.

A few pages on in the same volume, in a poem entitled “Our Meeting Place”, we find that from the depths of despair comes the cry of the heart for God’s response, His “silence-embrace”. This is the poem in its entirety:

       O Lord, my Master-Love, how far are we?
       How far from ecstasy’s silence-embrace?
       Heavy is my heart with sleepless sighs and pangs;
       I know my bleeding core, our meeting place.

Then, in “Revelation”, we find that this condition of utter desolation has been transformed into one of ecstatic oneness with God:

             No more my heart shall sob or grieve.
       My days and nights dissolve in God’s own Light.
             Above the toil of life my soul
       Is a bird of fire winging the Infinite.

And if there is an overlapping of the boundaries between prayer and poetry, there is yet another capacity of the poet which is still to be considered and that is his role as a singer. In fact, Sri Chinmoy’s expression of his gift for singing and musical composition predates his earliest poems in English, since his songs are written in Bengali. Moreover, the poet’s activities as a composer of songs continued to run concurrently with his composition of English poems until his final days.

Sri Chinmoy’s devotional songs are short and lyrical in nature. Like his early English poems, they correspond to strict metrical and rhyming patterns, particularly in the genre immortalised by Rabindranath Tagore. What is especially interesting in this context is that the poet often translated his songs into English and printed them as poems in their own right. In English, however, he freed the poems from the conventions of rhyme and rhythm and explored a spontaneous lyrical form. In many ways, they became poetic recreations of the original. One such example is the following classic:

       O MY LORD OF BEAUTY

       You are beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful,
       Beauty unparalleled in the garden of Eden.
       Day and night may Thy Image abide
       In the very depth of my heart.
       Without You my eyes have no vision,
       Everything is an illusion, everything is barren.
       All around me, within and without,
       The melody of tenebrous pangs I hear.
       My world is filled with excruciating pangs.
       O Lord, O my beautiful Lord,
       O my Lord of Beauty, in this lifetime
       Even for a fleeting second,
       May I be blessed with the boon
       To see Thy Face.

The ten-line Bengali original, while incomprehensible to most of us, is nonetheless revealing in a number of ways. Here it is in transliteration from the Bengali characters:

       Sundara hate sundara tumi
       Nandana bana majhe
       Nishidin jena antare mor
       Tomari murati raje
       Tumi chhara mor nayan andhar
       Sakali mithya sakali asar
       Chaudike mor bishwa bhubane
       Bedanar sur baje
       Pabo kigo dekha nimesher tare
       Ei jibaner majhe

To begin with, the rhyming scheme is a carefully structured abcbddabcb form (or aabbaa if the lines are written without end breaks). I am sure that Bengali literary experts could also cast light on the metrical scheme of the song. Having observed Sri Chinmoy composing many such songs, I know that he strived diligently to adhere to strict inner principles of composition. A final point to make, from my admittedly limited knowledge of the language, is his use of the word ‘tumi’ (meaning ‘you’) to refer to God. The honorific form of the second person pronoun does exist in Bengali – ‘apni’ – and is in current use for elders and all those in a formal relationship. Clearly, Sri Chinmoy has consciously eschewed this choice in favour of the more familiar ‘tumi’. As a direct result, perhaps, God is addressed in translation as ‘You’, while in the possessive form the poet uses ‘Thy’. The intermingling of these two modes lends dignity to the poet’s rapture.

Most of Sri Chinmoy’s translations from the Bengali favour the use of ‘You’ for God, with capitalisation of the initial letter providing a kind of mid-way elevation without necessitating the use of ‘Thou’. Around this pronoun many images of God accrete and it is in these images that the richness of Sri Chinmoy’s experience of God is best appreciated. It is here also that we find his most significant departures from Western modes of prayer. The following poem-prayer, to take one example, began as a Bengali song: 

       O MY BOATMAN

       O my Boat, O my Boatman,
       O message of Transcendental Delight,
       Carry me. My heart is thirsty and hungry,
       And it is fast asleep at the same time.
       Carry my heart to the other shore.
       The dance of death I see all around.
       The thunder of destruction indomitable I hear.
       O my Inner Pilot, You are mine,
       You are the Ocean of Compassion infinite.
       In You I lose myself,
       My all in You I lose.

For purposes of reference, here is the Bengali original:

       Ore mor kheya ore mor neye
       Ore ananda bani
       Niye jao mor trishita khudhita
       Supta chitta khani
       Mrittyu nritya heri charidhar
       Dhwangsa ashani hane durbar
       Ogo kandari tumi je amar
       Chira asimer kripa parabar
       Tomar majhare harabo amare
       Jani aji ami jani

The rhyming scheme appears to be aabb and then two very short lines containing internal rhymes follow. If we were to write out the poem according to the rhyming scheme, it would appear:

       Ore mor kheya ore mor neye ore ananda bani
       Niye jao mor trishita khudhita supta chitta khani
       Mrittyu nritya heri charidhar
       Dhwangsa ashani hane durbar
       Ogo kandari tumi je amar
       Chira asimer kripa parabar
       Tomar majhare
       Harabo amare
       Jani aji
       Ami jani

Gradually, as the seeker merges himself in the silence of that “Ocean of Compassion”, the lines become shorter and shorter until he finally loses himself completely in the last two lines, like a drop being absorbed into the sea. I am sure that many such subtle intricacies in the poet’s lyrical form will be revealed by Bengali scholars. In addition, there is a natural propensity for rhyme in the Bengali language which uniquely favours poets and which Sri Chinmoy employs with his most distinctive style.

In “O My Boatman”, God is represented in a number of ways – as Boat, Boatman, message, Pilot and Ocean – and yet these aspects of God are not at all contradictory. Rather we can feel a steady enlargement and deepening of the poet’s vision of God, a gathering momentum that carries him towards his urgent and heart-rending cry, “Carry me.” He recognises that if God should come in response to his appeal, then God will be manifest in everything: He will be the Boat, the Boatman, the ocean that is crossed and the shore on the other side. God’s immanence will be undeniable.

The entire landscape of the poem, while not specific to any geographical location, is suffused with the poet’s personal experience of the waterways of East Bengal where he was born, and the little ferryboats that plied to and fro. In another prayer from the same volume, he begins,

       O love me more and love me long.
       My boat is sinking, my hope is strong.

Rabindranath Tagore, writing from a similar perspective but without the same sense of dramatic urgency, gives us a finely nuanced portrait of his mysterious boatman in “Gitanjali”:

      74.

       The day is no more, the shadow is upon the
       earth. It is time that I go to the stream to fill
       my pitcher.

       The evening air is eager with the sad music of
       the water. Ah, it calls me out into the dusk. In
       the lonely lane there is no passer-by, the wind
       is up, the ripples are rampant in the river.

       I know not if I shall come back home. I know
       not whom I shall come to meet. There at the
       fording in the little boat the unknown man plays
       upon his lute.

Tagore’s boatman plays upon a lute. Sri Chinmoy also inclines towards the depiction of God as a musician entrancing mankind with His rapturous music. In the following poem, this divine Musician is both male and female, moon and sun:

      I SING, I SMILE

       I sing because You sing.
       I smile because You smile.
       Because You play on the flute
       I have become Your flute.
       You play in the depths of my heart.
       You are mine, I am Yours:
       In one Form
       You are my Mother and Father eternal,
       And Consciousness-moon, Consciousness-sun,
       All-pervading.

The allegorical frame of reference in this poem is specifically Indian. The poet is invoking the great spiritual figure Sri Krishna, who was perceived as an incarnation of God. In his youth, Sri Krishna charmed his devotees in Brindaban by playing the flute. We find a striking parallel in the opening poem of Tagore’s “Gitanjali”:

      1.

       Thou hast made me endless, such is
       thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou
       emptiest again and again, and
       fillest it ever with fresh life.

       This little flute of a reed thou
       hast carried over hills and dales,
       and hast breathed through it
       melodies eternally new.

       At the immortal touch of thy
       hands my little heart loses its
       limits in joy and gives birth to
       utterance ineffable.

       Thy infinite gifts come to me only
       on these very small hands of mine.
       Ages pass, and still thou pourest,
       And still there is room to fill.

Both poets seek to convey the experience of becoming an instrument which God animates with His Breath and through which He creates innumerable melodies.

Another signature of Sri Chinmoy’s spiritual heritage is in those prayers, particularly the translations from Bengali songs, which refer to one of the manifestations of God by name or by traditional epithet. The following exquisite invocation of Sri Krishna as “King of the cowherds” is embodied in a refrain that runs through the lyric and then fades away at the end, like a wistful echo:

      IN THE FOREST OF MY INNER LIGHT

       O King of the cowherds,
       O King of the cowherds,
       Just once before me appear.
       My life is a false dream,
       My death is a false dream.
       Do take them away.

       O King of the cowherds,
       O King of the cowherds,
       Just once before me appear.
       In the forest of my inner light,
       In the silent depths of my heart,
       I hear the soul-stirring music of your Flute.

       I see your divine cow,
       Grazing in the lap of Infinity’s Silence.
       O King of the cowherds,
       O King of the cowherds,
       Just once before me appear. 

In the following poem, it is Shiva, one of the Indian trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva (the Creator, the Preserver and the Transformer), who is called upon time and again to reveal and manifest his vast powers in and through the poet:

      ARISE! AWAKE!

       Arise, awake, O friend of my dream.
       Arise, awake, O breath of my life.
       Arise, awake, O light of my eyes.
       O seer-poet in me,
       Do manifest yourself in me and through me.

       Arise, awake, O vast heart within me.
       Arise, awake, O consciousness of mine,
       Which is always transcending the universe
       And its own life of the Beyond.

       Arise, awake, O form of my meditation
              transcendental.
       Arise, awake, O bound liberator in humanity.
       Arise, awake, O my heart’s Liberator, Shiva,
       And free mankind from its ignorance-sleep.

The specifically Hindu references here do not, however, impede our understanding of the text or our appreciation of the glorious language in which Shiva is invoked. Each time the phrase “Arise, awake” resounds, it is as if a bell has been struck. The original Bengali song reads as follows in transliteration:

       Jago amar swapan sathi
       Jago amar praner pran
       Jago amar chokher jyoti
       Rishi kabi murtiman
       Jago jago jago

       Jago amar bishal hiya
       Byapta jaha bishwamoy
       Jago amar sei chetana
       Bishwatite shesh ja noy
       Jago jago jago

       Jago amar dhyani swarup
       Jago amar badha jib
       Sarba jiber tandra tuti
       Jago amar mukta Shib
       Jago jago jago

Once more we see the flawless rhyming scheme, the condensed Bengali sentence structure, and the tendency of the poet to rely on single, powerful Bengali words to convey a depth of meaning for which there is no equivalent corresponding word in English. Hence, the necessity felt by the poet not merely to translate into English the word in question but also to suggest something of the entire area of experience that the word embodies. Let us take the second last line for example – “Jago amar mukta Shib”. Quite literally, the line means “Awake, my liberator Shiva.” But clearly Sri Chinmoy feels that this does not sufficiently convey Shiva’s role with respect to humanity at large and so he has rendered it in the wonderfully poetic and elegant lines: “Arise, awake, O my heart’s Liberator, Shiva,/And free mankind from its ignorance-sleep.” In essence, by defining Shiva’s role, the poet has translated not just his line of poetry but a vast area of spiritual experience and understanding to which his Western readers might not otherwise have access.

For the most part, however, Sri Chinmoy’s imagery for the Divine is not dependent on any particular spiritual tradition nor does it fit into any established pattern of prayer, at least in the Western sense. In the following poem, for example, he portrays the feminine aspect of God without using the name Kali or Durga or any of the other Indian goddesses. Equally, his poem could be taken as referring to Mary, the Mother of Christ. This is a prayer in which the supplicant experiences a state of grace after intense suffering:

      THE MESSAGE OF SURRENDER

       Today You have given me
       The message of surrender.
       I have offered to You
       My very flower-heart.
       In the dark night with tears,
       In the unknown prison-cell of illusion,
       In the house of the finite,
       No longer shall I abide.
       I know You are mine.
       I have known this, Mother,
       O Queen of the Eternal.

And the Bengali original reads:

       Tumi amai diyechho aj samarpaner bani
       Ami tomai sanpechhi mor kusum hriday khani
       Andhar rate ashru sathe
       Moher karar ajanate
       Simar gehe thakbona ar jani ami jani
       Tumi amar jenechhi ma chirantaner rani

Everything in the poem revolves around that single-syllable word ‘Ma’, ‘Mother’. It is the first word uttered by every child; and it represents the highest realisation of the saints and sages.

Thus we can see that Sri Chinmoy’s concept of God comprehends not only His immensity but also His nearness, in the form of Mother, Father or Beloved. One very moving example of the latter category is the following translation by the poet from his original Bengali song:

       I shall listen to Your command, I shall.
       In Your sky I shall fly, I shall fly.
       Eternally You are mine, my very own.
       You are my heart’s wealth.
       For You at night in tears I shall cry.
       For You at dawn with light I shall smile.
       For You, for You, Beloved, only for You.

A reading of the poems in “My Flute” reveals a continual shift in perspective, so that we behold God always in a new light. He is a Bird or an Ocean or a Flautist or a Boatman and so on. There are even occasions when the poet himself presupposes God’s answers to mankind’s prayerful questions and, far from being presumptuous, this conversation between the human and the Divine seems in perfect harmony coming from someone who is both a seer and a poet:

      WHERE IS THE TRUTH?

       O Lord, where is the Truth?
              “Where your Beloved is.”
       Who is my Beloved, Who?
              “In Whom your life is peace.” 

And that brings us to one of the most fundamental aspects of Sri Chinmoy’s prayers. The prayers are born of genuine personal experience, certainly, but they also articulate universal experiences. In many ways, they address the Divine on behalf of suffering and struggling humanity; they speak for the human heart. It is for this reason that they will never be dated. Sri Chinmoy has identified with mankind’s timeless spiritual longings. He has pleaded with God, begged Him for a response, wept for Him, communed with Him, praised Him, loved Him and thanked Him. Every possible kind of dialogue with God he has known from personal experience. That is why his prayers bear the stamp of authenticity.

But the greatest value of these prayers is that we seem to travel with them into the presence of the Divine. They enact for the reader what Sri Aurobindo has so beautifully described in “Savitri”:9

       A prayer, a master act, a king idea
       Can link man’s strength to a transcendent Force.

For, in the end, as someone has so aptly observed, God is not a grammarian. He answers our stuttering prayers, our mumbled prayers, even our unspoken prayers. So if we are to discuss the language of prayer, we must begin with silence, for that is where prayer is born and where it ultimately ends. Indeed, there is every possibility that, as Australian poet Nathan Shepherdson suggests, “the prayer is broken by the praying.”10 Given this landscape of wordless silence that informs prayer, it may be appropriate to end with one last prayer by Sri Chinmoy, a prayer in which the seeker aspires to learn the language of silence:

      ONLY ONE HOPE

       Break asunder all my hopes.
       Only keep one hope,
       And that hope is to learn
       The language of Your inner Silence
       In my utter unconditional surrender.
       In Your clear and free sky
       I shall be calm and perfect.
       The bird of my heart is dancing today
       In the festival of supernal Light.

 

– End –

References

1 Although the second person singular pronoun ‘thou’ is now synonymous with utmost reverence and solemnity, it was once a naturally occurring element of speech and indicated familiarity and intimacy. In fact, it was the pronoun ‘you’ which was considered to be the more formal mode of address. This usage of ‘thou’ is still preserved in several regional dialects in the United Kingdom. Over time, the meanings of the two words alternated. ‘You’ became increasingly common, while ‘thou’ was reserved for honorific use.

2 The Future Poetry, Part 2, Chapter VII

3 All the prayers and lyrics by Sri Chinmoy referred to in this article are selected from My Flute [Agni Press, NY: 1972, reprinted 1975]. The Bengali transliterations may be found at Sri Chinmoy Songs.

4 From a talk entitled “Ego”, given on January 26th, 1969 and published in Two Devouring Brothers: Doubt and EgoAgni Press, NY: 1974

5 ibid

6 The Three Branches of India’s Life-Tree: Commentaries on the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, Aum Publications, NY: 1996, pp. 169 and 220.

7 How Thou Singest, My Master! A Study of Tagore’s Poetry, Orient Longmans, Calcutta: 1961, pp. 47-48.

8 Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man, Macmillan, NY: 1931, p. 92.

9 Book One: The Book of Beginnings; Canto II: The Issue.

10 Review of Best Australian Poetry 2004, The Age

 

Copyright © 2010, Vidagdha Bennett. All rights reserved.